Running a hotel restaurant in New York City is a tricky proposition. It has to cater to two sets of tastes: the tourists' and the natives', two notoriously finicky groups in wildly disparate ways. A few places have succeeded in keeping their offerings nonthreatening enough for less adventurous out-of-towners while still edgy enough to stay on discerning locals' lists. One of those successes was Monkey Bar during Julian Clauss-Ehlers's tenure, which is why I was intrigued to see that British-born, Moroccan-inspired chef in charge of the New Yorker Hotel's new restaurant.
At Cooper's Tavern, you have to look hard to find any idiosyncratic touches. It's a pretty straightforward handful of steaks, pastas, and seafood, with just the occasional snippet of Asian citrus or North African brik pastry adding depth. A crab-cake starter ($15) is nicely meaty and attractively breaded, with a little scorch on the bottom that lends character. It's served on a fine crunchy slaw, but without much in the way of sauce; just swirls of decoration and tiny snippets of Moroccan preserved lemon that add interest if you can find them. A half-dozen steamed clams ($14) share their yawning shells with slices of really good chorizo, which singlehandedly make the dish. Buttery garlic bread helps too; if not for that duo, it'd be a poor appetizer, brought down by its too-tough clams and far-too-salty broth. The food seems to be at its best when at its most ambitious, as in "shrimp variations" ($15). The three-part platter includes two each of shrimp swathed in an unconventionally puffy tempura batter; firm, plain poached shrimp, and very good fried dumplings with a vinegary shrimp filling. Each is paired with a sauce, although mixing and matching is clearly not discouraged: The options include a tart tamarind goo, a chunky cocktail sauce, and an Asian-tasting milky dip of coconut and lemongrass. A thick corn chowder ($9) is pleasingly complicated by chunks of salmon and scallops; in one of those endlessly thrilling acts of showmanship that hotel restaurants in particular seem to relish, the soup is poured over the seafood at table from a handsome copper pitcher.
A small array of steaks is augmented by the "skyscraper burger" ($12), an excessively large, tasty hamburger that gets extra savor from smoked gouda, bacon, and grilled portobello, although the beef is perfectly capable of standing tall on its own. It's dragged down, though, by pathetically poor French fries, a soggy tangle of long, chalky-centered specimens that I'm impressed the kitchen was shameless enough to send out. The same fries bring down an order of fish and chips ($22). The disappointing side shares a big, high-walled basket with a large piece of cod thickly sheathed in crisp, fairly bland batter. A good dousing in malt vinegar or the provided spicy dip makes it an adequately tasty and filling meal, but hardly compelling of repeat visits if you live more than an elevator ride away.
Mr. Clauss-Ehlers perks up the well-cooked salmon filet ($24) that tradition requires on his menu by giving it a thick, crunchy crust made from falafel, which gives the innocuous fish some exotic intrigue; lovely stewed tomatoes underneath it give excellent support. A pair of double-thick lamb chops ($29), encompassing a total of four meaty ribs, make a fairly huge meal on their own, but lest someone leave hungry, they're propped up by a couple of potatoes' worth of super-thick, acceptably tasty fries. The meat, crisp-edged and bloody-middled, has an odd spongy texture but fine flavor. Two pork chops ($26) are stuffed with shreds of braised onion and served on a bed of sweet, bacony baked beans. They do their job, but they're hardly going to be the talk of the city's pork chop grapevine.
The waiters are warm but on the whole somewhat inept, with Old World accents that charm even as they confuse mushrooms with mashed potatoes and clams with crabs. Asking their thoughts on wine is singularly useless: There's no printed by-the-glass list, and one waiter's reeled-off suggestions included "petite shiraz" and Beringer zinfandel. Was the zinfandel red or white? He'd have to check.
As though it were deliberately constructed as an analogy, the restaurant has two entrances. The one leading to the hotel lobby is wide open and well-trafficked, and the door leading to Eighth Avenue and the city beyond is so stiff and heavy I twice assumed it was locked and went around through the lobby. The restaurant is hoping to woo a local clientele ó I know because I got a press release about it ó but its smattering of flair is not enough.
Cooper's Tavern (in the New Yorker Hotel, 481 Eighth Ave. at 35th Street, 212-268-8460).